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Pride on the line for Rupe

Now-healthy Rays pitcher embarrassed by last season's 5 wins.

By JOHN ROMANO

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 5, 2001


ST. PETERSBURG -- He is among the least of the Devil Rays concerns in the starting rotation. And that, come to think of it, should be a concern.

Because the way Ryan Rupe figures it, he has plenty of issues to settle in 2001. For his team, for Tampa Bay fans and, most importantly, for himself.

Yet so many of the Rays starters have so much to prove -- Are Wilson Alvarez and Juan Guzman healthy? Will Paul Wilson's surgically repaired right arm hold up? Did Albie Lopez and Bryan Rekar really turn the corner last season? -- Rupe might seem like a font of stability.

As he heads into his first spring appearance today, Rupe appears all but assured of a spot in the middle of a still-evolving rotation.

And this is a guy who won five games last season with an ERA of 6.92.

"In my mind, I have things to prove this spring," Rupe said. "I mean, I won five games last year. That's horrible. It was embarrassing to me. People might look and say, 'He's in the big leagues, what does he care?' But you know your peers are looking at you, you know everyone back home is wondering about you, the coaching staff here is watching you. In order to play this game, you have to have some pride, and my pride is on the line right now."

The idea that his pride is at stake is somewhat of a comfort to Rupe. Because that means his health is no longer the issue.

To get the full impact of Rupe's injury-filled 2000 season, you must go back to this time last year. He was one of the most promising young pitchers in the American League after going 8-9 with a 4.55 ERA as a rookie in 1999. He had a spot reserved in the Rays rotation and images of success in his head.

Yet, after five horrendous starts in April, he was sent back to Triple-A. A week later, he was on the disabled list with tendinitis in his shoulder.

And the worst was still ahead.

Recalled by the Rays in the summer, he pitched better in July and August before coming out of a start in September with a heavy feeling in his arm. Trainer Jamie Reed noticed swelling and a slight coolness in Rupe's hand and quickly discerned a blood flow problem. Cleveland's team physician was summoned and Rupe was immediately sent to a hospital.

Doctors determined Rupe had a blood clot in a vein in his right biceps as well as slight blockage from a vascular problem.

"It was fortunate that it was discovered at that time," Reed said. "There was a chance it might have turned into something serious, but to say it saved his life would probably be over-dramatizing it."

Whether the clot and circulation problems were the cause of his poor performance from April to September is impossible to determine. Rupe's velocity was as good as ever last season, but he had little command of his pitches. Rays manager Larry Rothschild said that might have been from Rupe overthrowing to compensate for his arm not feeling right.

Rupe, 25, says the vascular problem is no longer an issue. He is taking a blood thinner, but otherwise said his arm is in perfect health. All that is left is for him to prove he can be the same rookie sensation who was promoted to the Rays in 1999 after 18 minor league starts.

"All he needs to do is pitch the way he can, and if he does that, I don't think he's going to get beat out by anybody. But there are no assumptions," Rothschild said. "If Ryan pitches well and pitches the way he can, you know what you're going to get and, so far ... he's thrown well."

Rothschild and pitching coach Bill Fischer are working on Rupe's mechanics to take pressure off his shoulder. They want him coming more to the plate instead of throwing across his body. Rothschild also said Rupe was not following through on his pitches last year, so they are working to have him land on the ball of his front foot instead of the heel.

For all the work they are doing on his windup, Rupe said he wonders whether they are more interested in his health whenever he has a ball in his hand. If so, he can live with that. Rupe figures he gradually will rid the Rays of any doubts with each of his performances.

"Every guy in this clubhouse at this level has a real high confidence level. If they didn't, they wouldn't be here," Rupe said. "To separate a guy from Double-A to the big leagues is not a whole lot of talent. A lot of it is confidence. So when you have a setback like I've had, you still need that confidence. You need to deal with it and go on."

So, from that standpoint, Rupe said he is acting like there is no reason to doubt his place in the rotation or his success in the coming year.

"I don't mind having a low profile," Rupe said. "I had enough of people wondering about me last year, I don't want to give them any reason to worry about me now."

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